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These Americans is Jyotsna Sreenivasan’s debut collection of stories. She is the child of immigrants from India and was born and raised in Ohio. Her previous publications include a novel And Laughter Fell From the Sky as well as short stories in various literary anthologies and journals. She was a finalist for the 2014 PEN Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The present collection of stories is unique among such collections since it includes eight short stories and a novella Hawk, thus providing readers a view of Sreenivasan’s versatility and ease in a variety of prose forms.
These Americans features vignettes in the lives of Indian Americans in a variety of contexts. What is particularly interesting is that many of the stories exhibit Sreenivasan’s gift for social satire and sly humor.
In the opening story, “Mirror,” a newly arrived Indian woman gives birth to a daughter in an American hospital and unexpectedly embraces the American custom of viewing the baby’s entry into the world with the help of a mirror, a practice she had initially rejected.
Two stories “At Home” and “Revolution” offer us glimpses of the immigrant experience from the perspective of children. In “At Home,” Amiya is readjusting to life in an American neighborhood after having left for India, earlier in her childhood. The gaps in her cultural assimilation are revealed when she does not win the Santa Claus-making contest because she creates a skinny Santa. In “Revolution”, Neel returns to India and interviews his grandfather hoping to learn about his contribution to the Gandhian freedom struggle only to be disappointed with the revelation that his grandfather had not participated in any revolutionary activities. Although he is most fearful of his grandfather’s persona through the visit, it is the grandfather who intuitively understands Neel’s predicament when his divorced father announces his new love interest.
The story in which Sreenivasan’s talent for comedy really shines is “Mrs. Raghavendra’s Daughter” — a widowed Indian American mother praying and plotting for an Indian husband for her second-generation daughter gradually realizes and accepts her daughter’s relationship with a Caucasian woman. The elaborate deceptions of the mother and daughter to avoid confronting the truth about the daughter’s sexuality produce much of the comedy in this story.
Mother-daughter relationships and the generational tensions they embody in South Asian immigrant families surface as a unifying theme in many stories. Often the second-generation daughter assumes that the mother is critical of her but sometimes, as in “The Sweater,” the story ends with an epiphany that love cements these overtly fractious relationships. In some stories like “Perfect Sunday”, we are offered a glimpse of inter-racial marriage and the tenuous balance between financial worries and the fleeting joys of childhood road trips that families must negotiate.
The most memorable work in this collection is “Hawk”, which is technically a novella. In this work, Sreenivasan returns to her engagement with the immigrant mother-daughter relationship. In this story too, the daughter is plagued by doubts of having disappointed her successful OBGYN mother by failures in her career and marriage. However, the story goes on to reveal secrets such as the personal crisis of the mother that she has sheltered her daughter from. The story also offers a sharp critique of the official multiculturalism practiced in schools, promoting diversity superficially, while still remaining non-receptive to any curricular content that challenges normative ideas about culture, race, and religion. I learned from Sreenivasan’s blog that she is a secondary school teacher. It is very rare that I read a work that I think I would like to teach in my own first-year college composition courses. “Hawk” is one such provocative novella, which is likely to jumpstart discussions about the teaching of race in America. Sreenivasan’s stories offer many teachable moments, without losing the ability to entertain us. The poise with which she navigates the comic and tragic aspects of immigrant life left me wanting to read more from her.
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.